September 12, 2022

Journaling: The mental health habit you didn’t know you needed

If I want insight into the phases I’ve passed through in life, I look no further than my stacks of journals. They began with lock and key “Dear Diary, so-and-so was very mean to me today,” sticker and doodle-covered notebooks from primary school years, moving swiftly forward to angsty teenage musings on heartbreak and high school drama, to post-collegiate reflections on moods relative to moon cycles, dream detailing, and general ponderings on the meaning of life. 

Every now and then when browsing through past recollections, I marvel at how the simple habit of putting pen to paper has been a constant support for my mental health throughout every stage of my life; an outlet for releasing stress and processing emotions, a means of cataloging wins and positive memories I may be prone to forget, a strategy for self-discovery and deepening self-awareness.  

Whatever your phase in life, journaling is a surprisingly powerful, evidence-based habit linked to positive mental health outcomes. 

Mental health benefits of journaling 

Stress relief

Stress makes us human, but left unmanaged, it can have serious consequences on our bodies and minds. Journaling is an excellent tool for stress management. It helps you cope with stressful thoughts by providing a safe space to externalize your worries, in order to create distance from them. A study on adults with anxiety found that those who journaled for 15 minutes three days per week, over a 12-week period, were able to significantly reduce mental distress and increase feelings of well-being. The same study showed that journaling also benefits physical health by strengthening immunity and lessening symptoms of chronic health conditions. 

Emotional regulation

Aside from being a place to vent, a journal can empower you to sit with the discomfort of complex feelings and work through them in a healthy way. Processing emotions through writing can provide a cathartic release, boost your mood, and improve your emotional health over time. Simply naming emotions that are present is a mindfulness technique that helps decrease their intensity and mitigate their impact. A study on adults with depression found that those who participated in writing about emotional events over a period of several days significantly decreased their depressive symptoms. 

Deeper self-awareness

Journaling drives self-awareness. Putting your experiences into words helps you acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, energy levels, and bodily sensations. In doing so, you can gain perspective about events you’ve experienced or emotions that come up. You become better able to understand patterns in your moods, thought processes or behaviors, and identify triggers. Through this process of introspection, you build resilience and become more equipped to handle similar experiences in the future. Plus, the more you learn about yourself, the easier it is to improve your relationships with others.  

Tips for mindful journaling  

Journaling is very complementary to mindfulness practice. You may even find that the act of journaling in itself is meditative. If you practice meditation, you may want to try capturing the thoughts and feelings that you observe during your meditation for further reflection. 

Non-judgment is the most important aspect of mindfulness to pull into your journaling practice. Your journal should be a safe space for you to express yourself freely, and notice how you feel. Remember that just like there’s no right or wrong way to feel, there’s no right or wrong way to journal. You may want to keep your journal private, so you don’t feel the need to censor yourself or experience grammar anxiety. 

Make observations with kindness. Be gentle with yourself when identifying patterns and hold everything with compassion. Instead of saying, “I can’t believe I…” try “Isn’t it interesting that I…” Try not to preoccupy yourself with overanalyzing—simply noticing is enough.

Be present. Paying conscious attention to the task at hand will help you get the most out of your journaling experience. For this reason, you might want to stick to pen and notebook rather than the digital realm. 

Explore positive thoughts as alternatives to negative ones. When the voice of your inner critic is strong, a journaling habit can help you counter negative thought patterns and consider them with increased objectivity. For example, if you’ve made a mistake at work, your initial thought may be to question your abilities. Listing recent accomplishments, your unique skills, or positive feedback you’ve received is a helpful way to see the bigger picture and move away from the negative thought spiral. Keeping a gratitude journal is another great way to pay attention to the good in your life. 

How to get started with journaling 

It’s not always easy to dive into journaling. I’m definitely guilty of getting overwhelmed with the wide array of journals available to purchase, whether or not to follow a structure, or how best to work the practice into my daily routine. And don’t get me started on color schemes and pen types! But as with any new habit, the simpler you make it for yourself, the easier it will be to build. You don’t need to bother with fancy templates, or hand-drawn bullet journals. Here are some habit-building tips you may find helpful: 

Start with a small step that’s so easy you can’t say no. It could be committing to writing one sentence, a bullet list, or free-form writing with a three-minute timer. 

Set a specific and repeatable intention. Identify a time and place for journaling that you can easily incorporate into your routine. 

Combine activities to make the new habit appealing. Maybe you play your favorite music in the background, or get into your comfy clothes and light a candle. 

Mind your surroundings. Keep your journaling zone distraction-free. Consider leaving your journal out where you can see it as a reminder. 

Reward yourself. The fun part! Building habits is hard, and rewarding yourself for the little steps you take is positive reinforcement plus a micro-dose of self-compassion. 

Lastly, if you find it a struggle to express yourself or are suffering from writer’s block, journaling prompts are your friend. 

If you’re interested in exploring more healthy habits to improve your mental health, check out eM Life’s 7 Days of Building Healthy Mental and Emotional Habits on-demand program.  

Written by Annie Slaby